05/19/2014 12:07 EDT | Updated 07/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Program allowing imprisoned mothers to be with their children remains in limbo

MONTREAL - Canada is set to complete an expansion of women's prisons this month with new rooms designed to accommodate mothers and their babies or young children.

But there's little indication the units will mean more participants in the federal government's mother-child prison program, which is rarely used even though it remains official policy.

"It's very unclear," said Howard Sapers, Canada's ombudsman for federal prisons.

"We've been in frequent contact with Corrections Service Canada about this issue, not just frankly about the confusion around the policy... but also about the very low participation rate."

Since 2008, only 14 children have participated at the federal level, with eight of them on a full-time basis.

At the moment there are two part-time participants, Sapers said.

Under the program, children under age four are allowed to stay with eligible inmate mothers inside the prison. Children under six are allowed on a part-time basis.

Advocates for the mother-child program argue it can lead to positive outcomes for both the woman and the child, including fewer inmates committing new crimes after their release.

Some victim groups, on the other hand, have argued it grants incarcerated women a privilege they don't deserve. Prison staff have also raised concern about the safety of the children.

Dr. Ruth Martin, a former B.C. prison doctor, said she's seen the benefits of the program first-hand.

"Once you've separated a baby from a mother, you can't turn back, because you've missed the opportunity at birth to establish breast feeding," said Martin, director for the Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education at the University of British Columbia.

Other jurisdictions, including New York, New Zealand, and Finland, have a mother-child program in place and studies suggest they're effective, Martin said.

The Correctional Service of Canada is adding a total of 114 minimum security beds in May to institutions in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. There will be 15 new adjoining rooms off the side from the main prison area, set aside for mothers and their children, CSC spokeswoman Chantal Guerette said in an email.

But Guerette didn't confirm whether the expansion would mean more women would take part in program, saying only the rooms "were designed with the capacity to facilitate the mother-child program."

The Harper government ordered stricter eligibility requirements by ministerial directive in 2008, following the controversial case of convicted murderer Lisa Whitford, who was allowed to keep her baby while behind bars.

The changes included reducing the age of eligibility among children from 12 to six, excluding those who committed more serious crimes, and requiring the approval of provincial or territorial authorities.

Six years later, however, the government has yet to make an official policy change.

Sapers is hoping a British Columbia court ruling last December affirming the rights of female offenders to be with their children helps move things forward — and opens the federal program up to more women.

The ruling came after a challenge from two inmates at Alouette Correctional Centre, which shut down its mother-child program in 2008.

While the B.C. decision isn't binding for other provinces or at the federal level, Sapers called it "instructive."

"In federal corrections, it will be properly pointed out that a program exists," he said. "But the court ruling also suggests it's not enough to have a program on paper, you have to have a program that actually exists."

Federally-incarcerated women are the fastest growing segment of Canada's prison population, with 35 per cent of them of aboriginal descent, according to Sapers. There are currently 619 women in federal prisons and about two-thirds of them are mothers.

Of those, half are single parents, making establishing a connection between mother and child even more crucial, Sapers said.

"Sometimes the needs of the child are really undermined if you're putting a very young child into temporary foster care and maybe even serial placements of foster care while the mother is serving a short period," he said.

Amanda Edgar, who gave birth to her daughter in 2011 while in a B.C. jail that still offered the program, said it helped her developed a strong connection with her daughter.

"I had that bond with her. I was able to breastfeed her," she said.

Edgar was released the same year and is now studying horticulture. The 30-year-old said she never felt her child was in danger behind bars — and many of the staff and her fellow inmates helped care for her child.

The B.C. government, which not appeal Dec. 2013 the court decision, was given six months to reinstate the program.